For the past week or so, I’ve watched the internet ablaze over a special gathering of women of color sponsored by Legacy at the TGCW18 conference. (see their write up about it here.) The meeting is for women to come together to discuss their shared experiences (a phrase I will definitely be coming back to) and encourage one another. Why? Well, because being a minority, where minorities are very much the minority, trying to navigate through predominantly white spaces can be tricky and trying. If you don’t understand that, try talking to some minority women in those circumstances. But the upshot is that some women feel the need to retreat and gather among themselves apart from those who don’t really understand what it is like. They have a shared experience.
Of course, I get that there are varying degrees of sensitivity. Especially in these times of heightened racial awareness, I can see how those who are quick to racialize every aspect of every environment and interaction might feel the need for separate spaces. But let’s not be too quick to make those assumptions that explains what is going on here. And let’s not be too quick to attribute this acute awareness only among racial lines. Consider those who experience being a very small minority representation of whatever is the majority group: parents of small children in a church full of older couples; singles in the midst of married people; men in the company of a majority of women and vice versa. It’s not that you’re repudiating the majority group but there is a heightened sense of awareness that you kind of stand out and open to varying degrees of misunderstandings, misperceptions and prejudices.
This special gathering has spawned a bit of an uproar with charges of gospel-denying racism. I have even heard that the noise has caused the FBI to make some inquiries. Some folks are concerned that this kind of segregation has no place in the body of Christ. I do understand and appreciate the sentiment that oneness in Christ should preclude any kind of racial or ethnic superiority or exclusivity. As I wrote about in Some Questions I’m Asking While Off to my White Evangelical Church, I too have concerns that racial animus is creating a divide in the body of Christ. After all, Christ broke down the walls of ethnic hostility so that we can hold our identity in him first and foremost, bearing with one another and learning to love each other in spite of the extensive legacy of racial hostility. We do have to be cautious of creating unnecessary divides in the body of Christ, resisting the urge to retreat into separate enclaves because working out our salvation with fear and trembling is simply too intolerable.
So I hear what folks are saying: let’s make sure we don’t revert back to “separate but equal.” Let’s not create hostilities where they shouldn’t be. Let’s not exclude others lest pure fellowship be hindered because of special interests.
Except there’s one small problem: the church is full of separate affinity groups, whether it be for singles, married couples, seniors, youth, etc.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28 ESV)
Now I don’t know about Gentile groups, but we definitely groups specific to Jewish Christians. And we have separate male and female formalized fellowships. If we are one in Christ, why is this even necessary? Jewish Christians recognize there are concerns specific to their identity as Christians. Why do we have separate men and women fellowships? Because men and women have unique concerns that get most effectively addressed when there is comfortable space for honesty and vulnerability. We acknowledge that sometimes it is beneficial to create such spaces so brothers and sisters in Christ can be free to share their struggles that are unique to being in a particular sub-group within Christianity. We do this with singles. We do this for married people. We do this for people experiencing addictions. We do this for Christians who have lost loved ones and grieve. We do this for mothers with toddlers. We do this for infertile couples. We do this for people who have experienced abuse…and the list goes on. I also imagine that Christians serving in other countries might feel the need to gather with those from their home country from time to time. This is a natural inclination.
Let’s be clear, when such gatherings are advertised they are directed towards that particular group. It doesn’t necessarily mean other people can’t come or are uninvited but that the meeting is targeting people who have those experiences. In the case of the special gathering for women, I can see where the language directed at white sisters might warrant concerns. However, the main point of sub-groups gathering is that there can be open dialogue and encouragement without the intrusion of explaining to others why this particular experience impacts them they way it does. If people want to create a space for that dialogue without such intrusions, why is that necessarily a bad thing? And if we’re going to insist that minorities who want to gather among themselves are transgressing the gospel through segregation, then we have to apply that same standard to other groups as well.
At the end of the day, I’m all for striving for gospel unity. Yes, let’s gather as the body and learn to love each other, empathize and bear each other’s burdens. We really can’t do that in separate groups. I personally have felt increasingly less inclined to participate in any kind of affinity group. But does a gathering for a group of women who want to come together to pray and encourage each other rise to the level of hysteria and charges of racism? I think not. The attention people are giving this to a watching world does more disservice than the actual event itself. Besides, there are bigger fish to fry in a world gone mad and godless.